Families Need Support Too

We always encourage family members to seek counseling, because active addicts, along with inactive ones who are not in recovery (dry drunks), make everyone around them a little bit crazy.  The uncertainty, disappointments, emotional and — often — physical mistreatment, and the other aspects of loving an addict are not the ingredients of good emotional and physical health.  And then there’s the anger.

Anger is a perfectly normal emotion with an essential purpose: it keeps us from becoming incapacitated by fear.  Along with denial, it gives us the energy to work our way past the obstacles that we run across in life.  If we believed every negative thing that was said about us, or if we allowed ourselves to be stymied by the many obstacles that crop up in our day to day existence, we’d never get anything done.  

These things hinder us not only because they’re in our way, but because they bring fear along with them — fear of failure, fear that we’ll look bad, fear that we won’t measure up to our own self-image or the expectations of others, and fear of economic, social, or physical injury.  Anger and its little sisters indignation and annoyance give us the energy to overcome those fears, big and small, real or imagined, and to move onward.  To put it another way, no one functions well when they feel powerless or vulnerable, and anger helps us feel powerful.

Of course when anger gets out of control (rage), or we allow it to become habitual (resentments), it causes problems.  This can happen because we enjoy the feeling of power, or — because one of the characteristics of anger is tunnel-vision — it can help us overlook our own part in things, and make it easier to shift blame to the other party.  Anger depersonalizes our adversaries and makes it easier for us to justify our own behavior toward them.  All of these things have their uses, but they can obviously be seriously misused, as well.  Furthermore, over time, these ways of thinking about individuals and the world can become ingrained, and extremely difficult to change when they are no longer of use.  

Finally — but by no means least important — the physical changes that are produced by unresolved anger (undischarged energy) can be long-lasting and can create physical problems that are often fatal.  Stress-related diseases such as cardiovascular complications, eating disorders, other addictive disorders, diabetes, depression, frequent illness, and non-specific pain issues such as chronic head, neck and back pain can all be results of unresolved anger.

Anger doesn’t go away by itself.  If it isn’t discharged by physical and/or emotional release, or if it isn’t dug out, examined, and allowed to run its course, it will continue to produce stress and make life difficult.  This is especially difficult for family members of alcoholics and other addicts, because it isn’t “nice” to be angry in our culture, especially at family members, and practically never at authority figures lest they discharge some of their own anger issues in our direction.  Children are required to respect older people, for example, even when they have irrevocably proven themselves unworthy.  Talk about powerless…

So, families of addicts almost always have anger issues to address.  There are probably other things as well.  Children, in particular, have a tendency to blame their parents' problems on themselves, and those things need to be addressed.  Emotionally abused family members can add self-esteem issues to their anger, and everyone has resentments: birthdays missed, money misspent, obligations unmet…and on, and on.

It’s imperative that these things be put to rights.  Whether or not the alcoholic/addict stays clean, whether or not the family stays together, every one of the members have their lives irrevocably changed.  Unless the damage of those changes is dealt with, none of them will have the lives they deserve.  In the next article, we’ll discuss some options.


Help or enable — what if the person is mentally ill?

A reader writes:

My adult son plays me like a fiddle, but I am confused as to where do I draw the line because he is mentally ill. I am so stressed about this that I can barely function and I am going broke and he isn't getting better. Can you provide any advice? Thanks.

Mental illness and addiction seem to go together.  Some people learn that they can self-medicate by using alcohol or other drugs, thereby moderating their symptoms.  Others may be less mentally-ill than simply suffering from messed-up brain chemistry due to the drugs.

In any case, the presence of chemicals always complicates treatment for other disorders. In fact, it's nearly impossible to treat mentally-ill people effectively if they are still using.  How, for example, is a physician to treat depression in a person who is addicted to alcohol or opiates, both of which cause depression?

Would that I had an easy answer, but there are none when it comes to addiction and other mental disorders.  So let's approach this problem from a different direction.  You write, “I am so stressed about this that I can barely function and I am going broke and he isn't getting better,” so let me ask you a question.  If you are going nuts and broke, how are you ever going to be able to help your son?  Would it not be better to get your own situation under control, keep your sanity and whatever resources you have left, and stop banging your head against the wall?

The fact is, your son is quite aware that he can “play you like a fiddle,” and he has no reason to try to get better.  It gets back to the simple fact that when you make his life easier, you remove any incentive to change.  You did not state what his mental problems may be, but one thing is sure.  You can't help him if you're losing your own ability to function.

So I suggest you start taking care of yourself.  Begin by attending some support groups — I suggest Al-Anon, and perhaps one for people dealing with mentally disabled dependents.  Your local mental health association should be able to direct you to some of the latter.  As for Al-Anon, there are meetings all over the world, and I strongly urge you to avail yourself of the understanding and companionship of people who know where you're coming from.  Only by dealing with your own confusion and coping problems will you reach a state where you are able to help your son when — and if — he decides to accept effective assistance.

In the meantime, I would suggest that you minimize any “helping” that in any way facilitates his drug use.  If he is unable to care for himself, then perhaps throwing him out is not the kind of tough love that would be helpful.  If, however, he is capable of fending for himself, even at a low level, let him know that he has a choice: give up the cushy life at your house and take over his own life, or go get some treatment.

In any case, you need to take care of yourself first.